Time dwindles for Rutgers to get on track
The Rutgers men’s basketball team’s loss against Central Florida on Wednesday put the Scarlet Knights in a bad spot.
Rutgers’ (10-18, 4-11) goal is to finish sixth in the AAC, which gives it a first-round bye in the conference tournament. That is Houston’s (13-14, 5-9) to take with an easier schedule than the Knights for the rest of the regular season.
The Knights next host South Florida (12-16, 3-12) tomorrow, but it gets more difficult from there. Now in a four-game losing streak, Rutgers closes the regular season against UConn (22-6, 10-5) and No. 11 Cincinnati (24-4, 13-2).
Houston, meanwhile, hosts No. 21 Memphis (21-6, 10-4) and then faces Temple (7-19, 2-12), South Florida and UCF (11-15, 3-12).
Rutgers must find a way to beat any of the top-five AAC teams. While a few of the Knights’ matches against these foes were competitive, Rutgers is still 0-8 against those opponents this year.
Other than that, Rutgers is 4-3 against the AAC’s bottom half. UCF contributed that third loss by overcoming a 54-39 deficit with 9:30 left in the game.
So no matter the opponent and Rutgers’ lead, the Knights’ ability to close out a game is never a guarantee.
“When you’re up 15, you should win, but you’ve got to play 40 minutes and we played about 36,” head coach Eddie Jordan told The Associated Press. “We couldn’t come up with the need baskets in those last four minutes and they did.”
UCF exposed Rutgers’ defensive deficiencies as guard Isaiah Sykes made a go-ahead layup with 42 seconds remaining.
Junior wing Craig Brown guarded Sykes on the perimeter. Sykes shifted past him, as Rutgers barely contested him for the open layup.
Rutgers still finds difficulty with what UCF improved on.
“It’s nice to be in a tight game and finally win one,” UCF head coach Donnie Jones told the AP. “We’re learning how much toughness you need to win in this league, how to get some stops defensively to finish games and not just hang around. We did that tonight.”
USF gives Rutgers a chance to break its four-game skid, as the Bulls failed to win their last five. Their last regulation victory was Jan. 28 against SMU.
During that losing streak, UConn beat USF, 80-43, Feb. 12 in Hartford, Conn., but the Bulls improved, only losing to the Huskies on Wednesday, 61-56.
If Rutgers fails to play a complete game, USF might end its losing streak at the Louis Brown Athletic Center.
In their last two games, the Knights played inconsistently in the final minutes against UCF and the opening minutes Feb. 20 against Memphis.
Once 8:19 remained in the first half against the Tigers, Rutgers outscored Memphis, 48-42. Unfortunately for the Knights, Memphis took a 22-11 lead before then.
But in the loss to UCF, it is a bad sign for Rutgers that its collapse got another lowly AAC team to play the brand of basketball it wants.
“We’ve had a lot of late-game slip ups this season and this was a great way to show our fans that we’ve had enough and learned from our mistakes,” UCF forward Tristan Spurlock told the AP. “This is the way we’re supposed to play basketball.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s basketball team, follow Josh Bakan on Twitter @JoshBakan. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.